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‘People like us’ drive BlaBlaCar’s India model

Hundred days into its India ops, the french ride-sharing company has a following of like-minded people.
By Hindol Sengupta

Rajkul Fulzele, 33, is a financial consultant at EY in Mumbai. His wife and baby daughter live in Pune, 150-odd kilometres away. Every weekend, Fulzele sets off in his red Honda Civic, driving some three hours to Pune. It’s a great road and a good drive, but doing it alone week after week was getting boring. “I wanted to get some company for the drive, and also split some costs,” he says. 

He had heard about BlaBlaCar, the international ride-sharing community, and in April, decided to give it a shot. On the BlaBlaCar site, Fulzele listed out his taste in music (classic rock, A.R. Rahman, and “anything that sounds great”), his preference for a non-smoker, “pets ok”, his itinerary, and uploaded a photo of his car.

Elsewhere in Mumbai, 23-year-old Rajul Nema was hunting for travel options to Pune. “I was trying to get train tickets, but that’s impossible at short notice. And buses are not very comfortable,” he says. Then he chanced upon the BlaBlaCar site. “What sort of a name is BlaBla, I thought. Sounds more like an online prank than a company.” 

He entered the site regardless, came across Fulzele’s post, and was attracted by the choice of music. He checked out Fulzele’s profile online, and what he saw convinced him to seek a seat in the red Civic on its next drive to Pune. Fulzele, too, checked Nema’s profile online before accepting him as a passenger. “I studied at IIM-Ahmedabad, and when I saw that Rajul was at IIM-Calcutta, I thought this might work out,” he says. “I immediately felt safer. This seemed like someone like me.”
 
“PEOPLE LIKE US”, or PLU, is an oft-used phrase that mocks class bias, but in a business like BlaBlaCar’s, it is a pillar of the value proposition. “Social profile is important; it is pretty much core to what we do,” says Raghav Gupta, CEO, BlaBlaCar India. 

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Globally, BlaBlaCar has 20 million users across 18 countries. Based on the simple premise of paid carpooling, it recently raised $100 million (Rs 632 crore), became France’s most exciting startup, and bought out two of its nearest competitors, Carpooling.com of Germany and Hungary’s Auto Hub.

It’s a seemingly simple act to check out a new contact on social media and other online platforms, but it adds a critical layer to BlaBlaCar’s model. While the BlaBlaCar India team checks every profile that’s registered, ultimately it’s the comfort levels of driver and passenger that will make the model work.

After his first BlaBlaCar experience, Nema is a strong advocate. He tells of one occasion when the driver, discovering Nema was from his hometown, refused to take any money from him. It’s ultimately all about a “trust ecosystem”.
But trust alone won’t pay for the petrol, so

BlaBlaCar fixes the price car owners can charge passengers on the basis of approximate fuel costs. Fulzele, for instance, charged Nema Rs 400, which is barely a third of his fuel cost. (It costs anything from Rs 250 to Rs 600 on a Volvo bus on this route.)

At the moment, BlaBlaCar does not charge a user fee in India, unlike in three European markets—France, Spain, and Britain. But at some stage (officials refuse to say when), BlaBlaCar plans to charge a fee of Rs 50, to be paid by the passenger as part of the total journey fee. The company will continue to charge nothing this for trips under 
75 km, which is its policy internationally.

BlaBlaCar refuses to share financial details, so it’s difficult to see how it can make profits in the absence of a user fee. But what it has managed to do in its first 100 days in the country is to accumulate more than 100,000 registered users. 

Within this span, the company has also accumulated a wealth of data. That BlaBlaCar users in India tend to be between 28-40 years of age, while co-travellers tend to be slightly younger. That most people use the service for short trips between cities like Delhi and Chandigarh, Delhi and Jaipur, and Mumbai and Pune. These are also the sectors where a lot of working professionals tend to use their personal cars for comfort and safety, says Gupta.

BlaBlaCar’s seven-member team checks each of these users; among other things, they filter out people who have too few friends on Facebook. “We are careful to check if suddenly some taxi operator creates a profile just to register on BlaBlaCar. Usually, in that case, they would have very few friends since the profile would be new. That’s when we have our antenna up,” says Gupta. 

The company also monitors car-owner behaviour and the frequency of posting trips. Too many day trips on the same route means it could be a taxi service. Car owners have to submit their driving licences, registration papers, as well as their credit card and insurance details, all of which are verified and validated. They also have to provide a recent photograph of themselves sans sunglasses, and looking at the camera.

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The idea behind such stringent checks is to ensure that people sharing a car are, as far as possible, PLU. “We are one of the safest alternatives in this space,” says Gupta, an audacious claim, given the news of a spate of cab-related crimes out of India. 

‘‘‘People like us’ is a vital model to build trust for a company like BlaBlaCar. But it needs long-term careful monitoring. One bad element can badly hurt credibility,” says auto expert Hormazd Sorabjee.

Life coach Gaurav Behl who has just registered on the site (but hasn’t tried it yet) uses his Volkswagen Polo to travel between Hyderabad and Bangalore or Goa. He says using this service is a mindset change. “There is too much fear in our society. We need to break that.”

That’s far easier said. Nema says fear is the reason one of his female acquaintances refuses to use BlaBlaCar (or any other cab service, for that matter). Gupta says he recognises the challenge. “That’s why travelling with people like you is step one.”